Benjamin Netanyahu, one of Israel's most popular politicians and a contender for leadership of the right-wing Likud Party, was caught up Friday in a sex scandal after charging that rivals were threatening to show a videotape of him cheating on his wife unless he quit the race.
Netanyahu, 43, a former deputy prime minister and ambassador to the United Nations, had gone on the evening television news, the country's most watched program, to acknowledge the extramarital affair--and to attempt to turn the smear campaign against his opponents.
But Netanyahu, nicknamed Bibi and dubbed Israel's "sexiest politician" in an opinion poll last year, got as much criticism as sympathy Friday as callers to radio talk shows asserted that his integrity is a legitimate political issue and debated his morals.
"A man who two-times his wife while she's at home nursing their baby . . . is out only for himself," an angry Tel Aviv woman said on a call-in program. "Is this a man we should elect prime minister? Where will Bibi be when the country needs him? In bed with a bimbo?"
A Jerusalem man, a Likud member, commented: "Netanyahu has probably learned a lesson from this, but he should take some time to reflect on it. . . . Let him withdraw from these elections and take time to re-establish our confidence in him."
Already dubbed "Bibigate" by Israel's tabloid press, Netanyahu's affair and its aftermath appear likely to test his efforts to introduce American-style politics here.
Rejecting as outmoded a system that grew out of Zionist and socialist politics in Central and Eastern Europe more than half a century ago, Netanyahu--who is American-educated--has sought both in his campaign for the Likud leadership and in fundamental reforms of the electoral system to bring Israel much closer to the U.S. model.
But Israel's best-selling newspaper, Yediot Aharonot, mocking both Netanyahu and American politics, juxtaposed pictures of Netanyahu and his wife, Sarah, and President-elect Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary, under the headline "Look where it got them," referring to romantic scandals that once threatened to upset Clinton's campaign.
The charges in Israel sent shock waves not only through the Likud, where Netanyahu is well ahead in opinion polls to take over the leadership from former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, but through the whole Israeli political system.
Until now, Israelis have paid little attention to politicians' private lives and have not been especially troubled by past disclosures about other leaders' sexual liaisons. "My guess is that the reaction would be much more moderate than elsewhere," pollster Hanoch Smith said. "Israelis have so many big problems that they don't really focus on this sort of thing."
Eli Dayan, the leader of the governing Labor Party in the Knesset, Israel's Parliament, lamented the controversy as "the importation of the vilest political habits from America and England. . . . Private lives have no bearing on public office, and this is as it should be."
But personalities are assuming far greater importance in Israeli politics. In the last parliamentary elections, Likud tried to use allegations of heavy drinking against Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and suggested he had suffered a nervous breakdown on the eve of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
Netanyahu, who married his third wife less than two years ago, had stunned Israelis on Thursday with his admission on prime-time television of his extramarital affair--and his charge that he was being blackmailed over it.
Asked who was behind the threat, Netanyahu replied, "It is a senior member of the Likud . . . who surrounds himself with criminals and does not represent the whole party."
While Netanyahu supporters pointed at David Levy, 54, a former foreign minister, Levy supporters suggested it was all an election ploy, an effort to re-energize a lagging campaign. Levy condemned the blackmail effort but criticized "the attempt to blame it on someone in the party." In addition to Levy, Benjamin Begin, 49, son of the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin, is seeking the leadership, as are two former Likud ministers.